On-Demand Judaism: Observing When It’s Convenient


Something new to worry about: It began with the conversation with one of my oldest friends, who is a trustee of the Metropolitan Opera. She noted that ticket sales were down due to the fact that people do not like to commit to subscriptions, which requires them to be in attendance at a performance at a certain time on a certain evening. She also noted that her cousin, who works for the National Theatre in London, had told her that all of the performing arts are in trouble because we live today in an on-demand world.

Many of us don’t know what time or on what channel our favorite TV shows are broadcast. People simply set their digital recorders and watch at their convenience. The rare exceptions are sports and award shows (such as the Academy Awards or the Grammys), which many people still want to watch in real time. 

The Jewish aspect of this on-demand phenomenon came to my attention when shortly before Passover (which was on Monday night this year), I asked one of my law partners where he would be for the seder. He responded, “Oh, my family had it last Saturday night. It was the best time for us to get together.” I mentioned this to a few people and within days had heard of three other instances of families choosing whatever evening was most convenient for them to hold the family seder. We can call this “on-demand Judaism.”

Jews, like everyone else, do what is convenient for them. And when I relate this to moral issues, it’s even more disturbing. I believe strongly that notions of morality must originate from outside one’s self, otherwise, morality comes down to what I think is right. And when morality becomes subjective, it degenerates into relativism and issues of personal convenience. 

The “seder when you want it” crowd alters Judaism for its convenience. By lessening the demands on Jews to observe their heritage, does one increase Jewish observance?

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of England has observed that the holidays that have the greatest degree of difficulty, namely fasting on Yom Kippur and the Passover seder, are more observed than the easier holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot. Rabbi Sacks notes that matters that require greater effort are valued more highly, and this is true for most endeavors in life. One can only imagine the reaction of Rabbi Sacks to the Saturday seder.

However, contrast on-demand Judaism, the observance of the seder on whatever day is convenient, with a phenomenon that began in the 1880s — the Yom Kippur Ball. Originally organized by anarchists in London, the custom migrated to New York and Montreal. And in Europe, in larger cities, as many as 5,000 people would attend these nosh-filled events on Yom Kippur. It was heresy. It was a provocation to the traditionally minded. It was a gathering for dissenters and socialists. But it was on the right day.

So which does one prefer? At least the free thinkers were Jewish enough to rebel on the correct day, as opposed to the convenience seekers who hold modern, on-demand seders on the wrong day. Yet, one must prefer the on-demand seder, for it represents the gathering together of family and friends as Jews, even if it is on the wrong day. 

The difficult truth for the traditionally minded is that the modern world we live in does not take well to any type of demands, any obligations to appear anywhere at a given place and at a given time, whether it is to appear at the opera or the seder. Traditional Judaism has become counter-cultural. 

At least the “Seder on Saturday” represents a commitment to family and to a Jewish connection. And this is preferable not only to the Yom Kippur Ball of yesteryear, but to the hundreds of thousands of modern Israelis who crowd the beaches for a day of sun and swimming on Yom Kippur. 

One nice thing about living in Israel: Since the national calendar is a Jewish one, seders are invariably held on the correct day, and there is much to be said for so many observing the same rituals at the same time. It speaks to one’s connection to the broader Jewish community. 

Still, “on-demand Judaism” gives us something new to consider.

Joseph R. Rackman is a partner in the New York office of the international law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP and the author of  “Why Be Moral,” available on a Kindle app.